Just words: writing

Writing with a pencil
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Hey, Friend,

Fridays are different from the other days. I meet up and write just for myself in a group. 45 minutes each week. This less than an hour has become my lens on the remaining 165. In a week of 168 hours, I type for one and hear for two and have kept it up for four months, because the writing and the listening got under my skin. Slowly. I am in text. On Fridays.

On Fridays, I don’t use my words loosely — friends — when I write. I listen to them and get taken away to the within and the without. Gently. I am moved and don’t have to journey alone. Writing with friends, using vocabulary that I uncovered in Webster’s, some yesterday and some 25 years ago. And the words of the friends are finely woven, skillfully thrown, gracefully spun. A poem recited, a story retold, a letter drafted. I listen in awe each Friday.

Each Friday, each writes a piece each. This matters. Writing is jotting down words on paper, hammering them into a machine, scratching the surface of wood, or spraying the grey of concrete, and so much more. Many different ways, and all have one wish in common. The writing longs to be seen and heard and kept. At least once in a while for a while. For that, I am learning to read and to listen and to build. For my writing.

My writing does not make me a writer. It makes me susceptible. Some words get under my skin, and I lay down mine with more care, since I like words more than cheese. And cheese, I love. Luckily, English has more words than any other language I know of. Willingly, it borrowed and kept the spaghettis, the kitsches, the schadenfreudes, the sputniks, and the BBQs of this world for me to choose from for my writing. 

My writing does not net me money. I know I am lucky that way, not needing the gain. Instead I use the texts to have a wallet for my understanding and sympathy, so that I can take out words to pay others the respect and give them the delight that I would like to commit freely. In a second language, committing is easier, when I am writing.

My writing does construct me. I am not a writer, but I would not be the same, if I did not craft a text among people who write and listen and speak so eloquently and empathetically about a written word of mine they heard. And then I don’t have words to say how thankful I am to all who help in my construction. So I am writing on Fridays.

One word at a time.

Just words: grasp

grasp the rope
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Hey, Friend,

Grasp it, clasp it, catch it. With your hands. Grasp it, see it, know it. With your mind.

For me, it has been six months. Six months of living in LA. Every day of the week. No driving-up from San Diego every other weekend. Half a year of working from home during the day and sleeping in the same bed each night. I have not yet fully grasped my luck.

COVID-19. I have not grasped that either. I must not grasp someone’s hand. That much I understood. Why the sales of Corona beer plummeted, I don’t understand. A lot of things have strange names. Naming a virus after a beer? Who had that idea? Or was it a hoax? It’s a bad name. Corona. Radiates abundance, power, and glory. Some would like to have these within their grasp. But being crowned with a virus? How frightening when one can’t breathe and can’t see why not. Invisible.

As in the folktale, the emperor is donning new clothes. His crown invisible, untouchable, he is grasping at straws, while his serfs are catching the virus, gasping for air. What’s going on in the land under him?

How do I get a grip, get a grasp on life? This life under a mask. Does it matter that there is a travel warning for Vienna? Does school take place in Wuhan? Russia is peddling the remedy? The US is on the list of countries from which one must not come?

I did not visit my mother in Finsterwalde this summer. So, I renovated the kitchen. Catch them while you can, I thought, especially, when you are in the house every day of the week. Lucky: In the kitchen, I am breathing regularly, when I have breakfast in the morning, before I sit down at my desk for a day’s work. Paid. As it always was. I have a full grasp of my little island; grasping this world will take me longer.

Just words: ambiguity

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Hey, Friend,
Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity [which I have now also moved to this blog]. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…

The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.

I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?

So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.
*ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move)
In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.

So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.

5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.

So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?

Or is there another way? What do you think?

As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)

Mat



This is the penultimate transfer of a post from the Panta Rhei Enterprise site. I had written this originally in July. I would think that apart from the dates being even further out, not much changed … for the better. I am still optimistic that it will. Eventually.

At least the tidying up of this blog and the one at Panta Rhei is nearing its useful conclusion.

Just words: vote

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Vote is a four-letter word, but I never took Latin. So, no voting for me.

Hey, Friend,
Are you going to vote? I am sure there is an election coming soon. Have you cast your vote before? I have. A long time ago.

I grew up in East Germany before the Wall came down. Every couple of years, they had something one Sunday, which they called an election. You would walk to the polling station, show your ID, be given a ballot, take one step to the right, fold the ballot, and stick it in the ballot box. Done. You had just voted for one list of candidates. All of them. From different parties and associations. All on the one state-sanctioned list, which you approved towards the 99.9%. And if you did not, they would revisit you with the “flying” ballot box. Again. And again.

In the first election after demonstrations, civic movement, and round tables— remember 1989? — I registered my protest vote. I had done the math. After the counting and announcements, I revoked my right to vote for a couple of years, believing that only people who don’t mix up politics and math should vote. Protest voting is nonlinear.

The German word for vote is die Stimme. Most common backtranslation: the voice. When you have a voice, you vote — when you vote, you have a voice! I always thought the words vote and voice are related, and maybe they are. But I never took Latin.

In England, I voted in local elections. But neither John Major nor Tony Blair were my fault. They were not my success either. European immigrants only vote locally. And in Canada? Permanent residents can’t vote for anybody. I watched the news and kept quiet.

And now I am here. Southern California. Best climate I have ever been in. Geographically. I will keep quiet, hanging on to my Green Card.

How about your voice? Your Stimme. Your vote!


I had posted this first on Panta Rhei Enterprise in August. Since there are less than 100 hours until the election and I am transfering the series Just words to this blog, it was high time.

Just words: herd immunity

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Hey, Friend,

It’s been another long work day. I had meant to write to you in the morning … Well, I am doing it now. So? How are you? Have COVID-19 and the general state of the little world we find ourselves in also impacted your daily schedule, workload, energy, emotions, expectations and even your ability to think as much as they have mine?

Am I really just one in a herd? And I am supposed to wait for herd immunity? I don’t know about that. Even the word irks me.

Immunity apparently came from Latin via French into English.
Not very rare and interesting — for a word.
What it meant first is interesting. Today!

immunitatem
: “exemption from performing public service” or

immunis
: “exempt, free, not paying a share”. What can I say? Is this where it is going this time?

Only in the late 19th century, the word immunity got its medical sense of protection from disease.

Don’t get me started on herd! What am I supposed to be? An ox? A bellwether? Or some non-descript cattle? What does it take to be part of this herd immunity?

Why are an animal metaphor and a strange old legal term being hooked up and dangled before us from time to time as a possible exit from a pandemic? Maybe, just maybe … there are better ways.

Hanging in there as always and thinking of you (plural, of course; but that’s a topic for another day…).

In any case. Just write. I want to know what you think. Can you derive any sense out of this?


As I promised, I am moving the posts from Just words from the Panta Rhei website here, one by one. And the series will continue here.

Just words: I give you my word

Scrabble: FEEL

And you get 7 points for this.

I’d like a word with you.
I give you my word.
You are twisting my words.
This blog became popular just by word of mouth.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.

This is a new beginning. The beginning of a series of blog posts. For each post in the series Just Words, I will select one word. Just one. Look at it from different angles. Play with it a little. Perhaps, see it in a new light. In a different context. And, today’s word is

the word

We are starting with an old Germanic noun. Linguists reconstructed a form wurda in Proto-Germanic, the assumed precursor to languages like Danish, Dutch, English, Friesian, German, and Swedish.

Is it important to be more aware of each individual word? Especially an old one such as word? One that we use quite frequently and in different contexts? One that different people have been using over many centuries?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Before I answer it, confession time: I am a philologist. (In Greek: philo- = loving; logos = word) I love words. Using them. (My family, friends, and colleagues tell me I use too many too often.)

So, my answer: Yes, being aware of one’s words is important. For two reasons: Words have consequences. Depending on the words you use, people will hear something different, feel something different, understand something different, or do something different. Or as Carl Sandburg said: Be careful with your words: once said they can only be forgiven, not forgotten. Words are powerful tools. Words can pinpoint and cover up. They can heal and hurt. And they can clarify and obscure. And so much more. Let me tell you two stories to illustrate.


I grew up in Finsterwalde in Germany. In this small town is a short street, named after Max Schmidt. The Max-Schmidt-Straße. For many years, I did not know who Max Schmidt had been.

1943. The war was in its fourth year. Max, a merchant in town, met with others in his local pub. Small talk and a beer or two. A time to tell jokes and anecdotes. Often with few words; one knew and understood each other. A popular opening gambit was the question: Do you already know the latest joke? The friendly reply was: no. And then the joke would be told. So, Max Schmidt sat down with his buddies and opened the conversation with “Do you already know the latest joke?” … … … “We will win the war.” One of the listeners mentioned the 5-word joke to a Nazi official in town. The Gestapo interrogated Max Schmidt. He came before the “People’s Court”, was accused of Wehrkraftzersetzung – undermining military force – sentenced to death, and executed in July of 1944.
For a 5-word joke.


When I was a student of Linguistics, I learned about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a hypothesis that discusses the relationship between linguistic structures in a language and people’s thinking and cultural values.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist and chemical engineer, became an engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company in 1919. In one incident, a worker had placed containers with liquid next to a heater, which started a fire. The containers were labeled “highly inflammable”. The worker had believed that inflammable was the opposite of flammable, like incomplete is the opposite of complete.
2 words. 1 prefix. The in- in incomplete or the in- in insure.


Do words matter? Even just one word? Carelessly or imprecisely used? The things we do with words …

Does it matter whether we talk about social distancing or physical distancing under COVID-19? Should one call it the Chinese virus? Are love and hate opposites? Can one compare apples and oranges? And which one is a correct word?

I will go through this word for word. You can take my word for it.


Originally, I posted this text on in the blog of our Panta Rhei Enterprise on May 2, 2020. It was indeed the first one in a small series, which I am now transferring here to this site.